It's hard to remember the last time Morgan Freeman really acted. In recent years he seems content collecting checks for playing "the Morgan Freeman type," a wise, grandfatherly presence, or that narrator with a comforting, honey-smooth baritone. So it's easy to savor the irony that his liveliest performance in ages sees him simply playing himself, or at least a close facsimile. Freeman stars here as an unnamed respected A-list actor who's been shelved for a few years, but is ready to get his toes wet again by doing research for a role in a low-budget indie. To get in character, he hangs around a rundown grocery in one of L.A.'s least fashionable barrios, and takes an immediate interest in the feisty but drop-dead gorgeous cashier, Scarlet (Paz Vega of Spanglish infamy). He's soon romancing the slums, cruising the hood in his new friend's puke-yellow AMC Gremlin, learning trailer-park romance and the simple pleasures of big-box retailers. Our hero quickly begins helping Scarlet with a big job interview that could liberate her from minimum-wage slavery, a task he treats like prepping a starlet for an audition. Though naturally flirty, he doesn't treat her as a sexual conquest, but as fascinating character study and a protégé he can mold, Henry Higgins style, into a proper lady. There is twinge of condescension in the paternal tone Freeman adopts with Vega, or in his amazement at the dirt-cheap prices of designer T-shirts at Target. There's also self-effacing humor, like when he hides one of his crappy thrillers in the back of a discount bin. Frankly, it's fun to watch Freeman cut loose, and the relaxed star hasn't been this cool since his days as Easy Reader on the Electric Company. We get glimpses of him beyond his comfort range when he forgets his own phone number, or starts to run when a fight starts, or dances with the fellas at a ghetto car wash. Vega is completely winning when she drops the fiery Latina stereotype and gets real (She could be the most ridiculously hot check-out girl in human history.)
Director Brad Silberling seems aware that he's made a vanity piece, though one with more tender loving care than such fluff might deserve, including some lovely shots made of mundane settings. 10 Items or Less is impossibly slight but thoroughly irresistible, a lark that doesn't have that much to say, but has a good time saying very little.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.